PCDForum Column #59,   Release Date September 1, 1993

by Robin Broad and John Cavanagh

So often in the United States and other industrial countries we hear
environmentalism referred to as a middle or upper class crusade. Poor people, we
are told, cannot afford such luxuries. Yet our visits to remote areas of the
Philippines revealed a wholly different story, one of the poor fighting to
protect their livelihoods and their children’s heritage from the environmental
ravages of powerful wealthy interests intent on plundering this former verdant
tropical paradise for short-term financial gains. They know their survival is at

The poor have blockaded logging roads to halt commercial loggers. At the
risk of their lives, they have confronted mining companies and trawler
operations and fought the destruction of coastal mangrove forests. They have
replanted trees and taken over vacant lands to cultivate traditional varieties
of rice using little or no chemical fertilizer and pesticide.

In a remote community of San Fernando in the southern province of Bukidnon,
a young peasant woman explained why she and other rice and corn farmers became
activists against the government’s logging policies. She had never heard of
global warming. But she told us, "Without trees there is no food and
without food, no life."

An old man explained that before the logging trucks came, "There was
plenty of fish, plenty of corn, and plenty of rice." The people have since
watched the rivers change shape, turn muddier, shallower, yet more violent
during the monsoons. In formerly flood-free areas, the river overflowed its
banks and swallowed adjacent fertile fields. Creeks that once nourished the
fields during the dry season disappeared; landslides became common during the
rainy season, and the rat population, which had previously found food in the
forests and been kept in check by forest predators, now ravaged farmers’ fields
at night. Today more than four out of five children suffer some degree of

The people petitioned the government to halt the loggers. After months
without reply, several hundred blockaded the logging road. Thirteen traveled to
far off Manila, a considerable expense for people of their means, to fast in
front of government offices and hold press conferences to publicize their cause.

Benguet Province is mining country. Here the indigenous Igorot ("people
of the mountains") have lived for centuries, many engaging in small scale "pocket
mining" of the rich gold veins on their ancestral lands. The men dig small
round caves into the mountain. Women and children hammer the gold-bearing rocks
into nuggets the size of corn kernels.

The area is now dominated by huge open pit mines operated by the Benguet
Corporation owned in approximately equal shares by wealthy Filipinos, the
Philippine government, and U.S. investors. Dozens of bulldozers, cranes, and
trucks cut deep gashes into the mountain, stripping away the tress and top soil
and dumping enormous piles of rocky waste into the river beds. The people tell
us how, with their water sources destroyed, they can no longer grow rice and
bananas and must go to the other side of the mountain for water to drink and
bathe. Even their own mining grounds are threatened, their rights ignored.

Instead of using water to separate the gold from the rock, as the Igorot do,
the mining company uses toxic chemicals and flushes them down the river,
poisoning the water and killing the cattle that drink it. Further down the
mountain rice farmers told us that their yields were plummeting as the mine
tailings covered their irrigated fields. Fishermen in the gulf reported
substantial reductions in their catch as tailings smothered the coral reefs. A
growing movement is emerging, joining the pocket miners, farmers, and fishermen
in challenging the right of the few to mine in a fashion so detrimental to the

The governments of poor countries may at times argue that protection of
forests and other natural resources is a concern being forced upon them by rich
country governments and environmentalists and will keep them from developing.
Yet in many of these same countries the poor are embracing the environment as
their own cause. For them, there is no trade-off between genuine development and
environmental sustainability.They are well aware that genuine development cannot
be rooted in the plunder of those natural resources upon which their existence

Robin Broad is a professor, School of International Service, American
University, Washington D.C. and a contributing editor of the PCDForum. John
Cavanagh co-directs the World Economy Project at the Institute for Policy
Studies in Washington, D.C. This column was prepared and distributed by the
PCDForum based on their book Plundering Paradise: The Struggle for the
Environment in the Philippines (Berkeley, California: University of California
Press, 1993). US$25.00.

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